Would I have a problem getting into the venue? Would their ticketless anti-scalper entry procedure thwart me? Would my old iPhone 5c betray me (it’s no longer compatible with the Ticketmaster mobile app)? Would I get a decent vantage point in PPG Paints Arena’s general admission floor (a still uncommon happening for large concerts in Pittsburgh)? Would the band be up to snuff? The lads are getting on in years, and dynamic lead singer and personal hero of mine Bruce Dickinson has been known to overexert himself. Would the show live up to my lofty expectations?
Iron Maiden imprinted on me at a particularly impressionable age. Getting glimpses of the band’s vividly illustrated t-shirts and album covers featuring their comic book-worthy mascot “Eddie” (he’s always reminded me of a cross between Deathlok, The Zombie, and Swamp Thing) ensnared my imagination.
Then I heard their music.
And I realized that Iron Maiden (and heavy metal bands in general) are about far more than imagery, the galloping bass lines, harmonized axe licks, soaring choruses, exceptional musicianship, and engrossing lyrics only strengthened my interest, which hasn’t wavered in more than three decades.
Seeing the video for their rousingly inspirational single “Wasted Years” with its meteor shower of a riff and vibrant, memorable refrain gave even more air to my fascination with these relatively clean-living lads who seemed more interested in reading and playing various sports than using drugs or carousing. These were globe-trotting adventurers and family men as opposed to the strutting, preening, hard-partying hooligans that dominated music television at the time.
Let’s face it: The best bands have a knack for making you feel as if you’re a teenager again, don’t they?
And after a hours-long wait to ensure prime spots in front of the stage with friends, that’s exactly what happened to me once I entered PPG Paints Arena hassle-free to witness what was probably the zenith of all gigs I’ve ever attended. It was as if every other concert I’ve been to led to this uncanny, spectral night.
Surrounded by kindred, we gave lone opening act The Raven Age a chance, most of us fully aware that one of the guitarists is the son of a certain bassist we’d be seeing on stage soon. A mildly enjoyable British nu-metalcore band in the vein of Bullet For My Valentine or Bruce’s son’s project Rise To Remain would be how I’d describe them if you like that chrome-laced alloy of metal. With only two albums out at the moment, I’m fairly confident that they’ll come more into their own if they stay intact. Their enthusiasm and graciousness for playing in front of big American audiences was heartwarming to see, though, particularly when fans put their lights up for The Raven Age’s moody ballad “Grave of the Fireflies.”
The anticipation was immeasurable after the opening act. I found a quality view close to the stage. Would this be as magical as I had hoped?
As any seasoned Iron Maiden fan knows, when the bouncy strains of UFO’s “Doctor, Doctor” play on the house sound system, the legends are about to storm the coliseum.
As Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight On The Beaches” speech took over, one could see tears streaming down the faces of Milennials, Gen-Xers, and Boomers alike. A look around verified that the arena was sold-out, making everyone forget the disappointing Steel City turnouts and mere club stands of tours past.
The opening firefall chords of “Aces High” began as 5/6 of the band scampered out for the blitz.
The Archer, Harris.
The Duelists, Murray and Smith.
The Jester, Janick Gers.
All with The Thunderer, McBrain behind them.
Then came the Aviator…The Swashbuckler…The Air Raid Siren.
Bruce Dickinson leapt out to face us like a cat pouncing on prey, from what time machine we shall never know, dressed as a British RAF Pilot while a replica Spitfire plane hung above our heads. Suddenly. we were all in the European skies of WW 2, that bold, champion’s chorus serving as a command to push fists towards the heavens, defying fascists past and present.
I was relieved. Iron Maiden still had “it.” They were “on.” And we were along for their crusade. Dickinson’s Ian Gillan/Arthur Brown wail was deeper, more mature, but eternally spry, powerful, brave.
From there, we were transported to a snowy mountain castle on a rescue mission for the action/adventure novel/film come to life “Where Eagles Dare,” Nicko McBrain’s drumwork hitting us all in our guts with rapid shots of rhythm, its ascending riff dogfighting Nazis courtesy of the trio of Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers, Bruce acting as general.
The perpetually relevant “2 Minutes To Midnight” with its machine gun riffage and warning/lament of nuclear conflict, came next, taking us back to the Live After Death era in all its sparkling fury.
The rest of the show was a grand whirlwind of career representation and re-visitation Some albums were completely overlooked, but the gracious crowd minded not a whit, and the band were intent on delivering, nailing each performance like the shrewd veterans they are. Bruce had little time for banter, and there was no encore, Iron Maiden performing straight through for nearly two hours. Murray and Smith played off of each other as if they were at a stalemate of a chess match, trading solos as brilliantly as they always have and at times even more so while founder Steve Harris proved that he is the premiere heavy metal bass-slinger, his dexterity and prowess on the thick strings remaining unmatched, his custom of barking lyrics back to onlookers still hypnotizing and spine-tingling. There’s been some disagreement as to whether or not jovial third guitarist Janick Gers still belongs in the band, Iron Maiden choosing to keep him onboard when Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the fold two decades ago this year after an exile, but upon watching him hold his own on songs such as the hauntingly seminal death penalty ode “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” I will say that he does, despite being one of those detractors for a while. Think Angus Young meets David Lee Roth. The man can shoot like Blackmore with a Gatlin when he chooses so. The chops are there. The special effects only enhanced the experience and distracted from nothing.
Always as much of a master showman as is he is a singer, Bruce wielded his blade for battle cries such as “The Clansman” (which began with a brief historical lesson) and Crimean anthem “The Trooper,” which saw the vocalist clash “steel” with a towering Eddie straight from the single’s sleeve. A much larger, demonic Eddie would surface later on. Pyrotechnics set the place ablaze during the phantasmagoric and biblical title track of The Number of the Beast, one of the most celebrated albums from one of metal’s most celebrated bands. And celebrate we did with few disturbances. Fans for the most part were attentive and stayed put. This was special. There was that sort of magnetism in the atmosphere. Iron Maiden had not played within the Pittsburgh city limits since 1996 with a different singer (the fine in his own damn right Blaze Bayley) whose stint in the band is still debated and whose era is still touched upon and respected as evidenced by the inclusion of “Sign of the Cross” and a song I mentioned before in “The Clansman.” People cried. People cheered. People cared.
Spiritual themes were explored with aplomb as Iron Maiden jaunted through the stomping “Revelations,” “The Sign of the Cross,” and latter-day track “For The Greater Good of God.”
Acrobatic, leather-clad, and greying daredevil Bruce Dickinson kept the flock transfixed as he ran about the set as if he were a young parkour artist, jumping from platform to platform, nary missing a step or note. A gigantic angel fell during dire fable “Flight of Icarus” during which Bruce sang dangerously with wrist-mounted flame throwers, screaming like a phoenix. Bruce Dickinson is a trained pilot. He will not tremble in front of The Reaper, even as he carried a lantern and wore a mask and cape during live staple “Fear of the Dark.” His lungs remain unbeatable.
No songs were out of place. Even selections I like less than others meshed well with the stone-etched classics like bright staccato rocker “The Wicker Man,” the self-titled, punky (an artifact left by previous frontman Paul Di’Anno) and vaguely Celtic debut album’s morbid, medieval title track (this was when the second Eddie appeared surrounded by gothic torches), mystical concept album romp “The Evil That Men Do,” and dashing, exhilarating finale “Run To The Hills.” Crowd participation was robust throughout the show, but the rivetheads, earthdogs, and hellrats certainly saved their throats for the closer.
A sextet of jolly, gifted, well-read, middle-aged English gentlemen and their undead, immortal, other-dimensional avatar are having the times of their lives as they wave the flag for the NWOBHM movement that begat them, be it in North America or the rest of the planet. Be sure to catch their mighty, supernatural spectacle of myth, melody, magic, and war while they’re still plying their sacred, chosen trade.
Immaterial of the amount of hours and miles you’ve logged following them since their 1975 inception, now is the time to see Iron Maiden. 1985 is no longer the year that they peaked. 2019 is. And so shall be 2020…and so on and so forth, Memnoch willing.
Iron Maiden are showing every other metal band how it is done just as they did in 2005 at Ozzfest and in 2010 in support of The Final Frontier record. Yes, this was ashamedly only my third encounter with Iron Maiden in concert.
Never mind the critical acclaim, the album sales, their vast influence on all metal subgenres, their planetwide appeal, and the fact that celebrities are outing themselves as devotees. Let their current electric, bombastic, preternaturally uplifting, Vaudevillian extravaganza delete all doubts that Iron Maiden are the greatest heavy metal band there ever was, is, or shall be. Heavy Metal is a nation. Iron Maiden are its proudest, most revered patriots.
Even I am wistful as I compose this memoir considering that I may never see them again. If the gods are kind, I’ll have at least one more evening with Iron Maiden before they call it a career. And so will you. Up The Irons forever and ever and ever and ever.
“I ain’t into heavy metal, but I’ll tell ya what. You guys stick together. Yinz all love your bands and don’t go to concerts just to be seen and be stupid. I like workin’ these shows.”-An usher at PPG Paints Arena overheard as fans filed out of the venue after the concert finished.